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Paul Bunyan

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Paul Bunyan in Akeley, Minnesota.

Paul Bunyan is a mythological lumberjack who is usually believed to be a giant as well as a lumberjack of unusual skill. The character was first documented in the work of American journalist James MacGillivray in 1910. In 1916, as part of an advertising campaign for a logging company, ad writer William Laughead reworked the old logging tales into that of a giant lumberjack and gave birth to the modern Paul Bunyan legend.


Origin: folk tale or advertising campaign?

The National Register of Historic Places-listed Paul Bunyan Statue in Portland, Oregon.

According to writer James Stevens in his 1925 book Paul Bunyan, French Canadians gave birth to the tales during the Papineau Rebellion of 1837, when they revolted against the young English Queen.[1] This would probably explain the origin of Bunyan's last name since "Bonyenne" is a colloquial French-Canadian expression of surprise and astonishment meaning "Good Grief" or "My Goodness".

The origin of the legends say that at the mouth of the river in the Two Mountains area near Saint-Eustache, Quebec, loggers stormed into battle against the British, among them a fierce and bearded giant named Paul Bonjean, monikered as "Bonyenne". (Another series of related legends are based on the feats of an actual man having lived in logging camps in the Ottawa Valley named Big Joe Mufferaw or Jos. Montferrand.) Defender of the people, the popular hero's legends moved up-river from shanty ("chantier" in French) to shanty. His name was anglified and stories were eventually modified and added upon from storyteller to storyteller.

Later historians hold that Paul Bunyan, and specifically the idea of Bunyan as a giant lumberjack with a giant blue ox sidekick, was created in the 20th century for an advertising campaign. Although it is claimed in some sources that "there is no documentary evidence of any Paul Bunyan story being told before James MacGillivray's story "The Round River Drive", published in 1910" [2], MacGillivray had published some stories in the Oscoda, Michigan, Press on August 10, 1906, and Governor of Michigan Jennifer M. Granholm proclaimed the centennial of that date as "Paul Bunyan Day". [3].

MacGillivray's story does not suggest that Paul Bunyan was a giant and contains no mention of a blue ox companion.[4]. However, author J.E. Rockwell had written about lumberjack tales about Paul Bunyan, and referred to the (unnamed) blue ox in the February, 1910 issue of the magazine The Outer's Book. According to one tale noted by Rockwell, Bunyan was "eight feet tall and weighed 300 pounds" [5] Historian Carleton C. Ames (whose son Aldrich Ames would later become a notorious spy)[6] claimed in a 1940 article[2] that Paul Bunyan was a 20th century invention rather than a 19th century lumber camp folk hero.[7] William Laughead, an advertising copywriter who had once worked in lumber camps, took the stories of an old lumberjack and reworked them into the modern Paul Bunyan character. He sold his character to the Red River Lumber Company, which published "Introducing Mr. Paul Bunyan of Westwood, California" in 1916 as an advertising pamphlet.[8] Among other things, Laughead gave the name "Babe" to the Blue Ox, and created the first pictorial representation of Bunyan. Authors Richard Dorson and Marshall Fitwick cite Paul Bunyan as an example of "fakelore", or a modern story passed off as an older folktale.[9][10]

Lumberjack legend

Bunyan's birth was strange, as are the births of many mythic heroes, as it took three storks to carry the infant (ordinarily, one stork could carry several babies and drop them off at their parents' homes). When he was old enough to clap and laugh, the vibration broke every window in the house. When he was seven months old, he sawed the legs off his parents' bed in the middle of the night. Paul and Babe the Blue Ox, his companion, dug the Grand Canyon when he dragged his axe behind him. He created Mount Hood by piling rocks on top of his campfire to put it out.

Babe the Blue Ox, Bunyan's companion, was a massive creature with exceptional strength.[11] Most imagery of Bunyan shows Babe the Blue Ox as being of proportionate size (meaning massive compared to everything else). Among other subjects, a myth about the formation of Great Lakes was created centered around Babe: Paul Bunyan needed to create a watering hole large enough for Babe to drink from.[8] Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett were said to give Babe to Paul Bunyan, because they were all "woodsey" pioneer types. Paul Bunyan has dozens of towns vying to be considered his home. Several authors, including James Stevens and D. Laurence Rogers, have traced the tales to the exploits of French-Canadian lumberjack Fabian "Saginaw Joe" Fournier, 1845–1875. Fournier worked for the H. M. Loud Company in the Grayling, Michigan area, 1865–1875, where MacGillivray later worked and apparently picked up the stories.

The state of Michigan declared Oscoda, Michigan as the official home of Paul Bunyan because it had the earliest documented published stories by MacGillivray. Other towns such as Bemidji, Brainerd, Shelton, and Westwood; Bay City; Wahoo; Eau Claire; and even Bangor also claim the title.

Kelliher, Minnesota is the home of Paul Bunyan Memorial Park, which contains a site purporting to be Paul Bunyan's grave. Another legend claims that Rib Mountain in Wausau, Wisconsin, is Bunyan's grave site.

The Paul Bunyan Council of the Boy Scouts of America was active in Midland, Michigan from 1951-1971 and two Order of the Arrow lodges have their original roots tied into the fable of Paul Bunyan. OA Lodge 196, Mesabi, from Hibbing, Minnesota, used Paul Bunyan as its lodge totem from 1941–1995. OA Lodge 26, Blue Ox, from Rochester, Minnesota, has used the Blue Ox (Babe) exclusively as its lodge totem and on nearly all patches and neckerchiefs since 1927.

All these facts are proven by Jim B. Rover finding records in the Library of Congress.


Ojibwe myth has it that Nanabozho saved the forests from Paul Bunyan. They fought for forty days and nights, and Nanabozho killed him with a big fish[12] and a pancake[citation needed].

Tourist attractions

File:Paul Bunyan and Babe statues Bemidji Minnesota crop.JPG
Ten-meter tall statue of Babe the Blue Ox at Trees of Mystery, Klamath, California.

See also

Folklore portal



Further reading

  • Bélanger, Georges. La collection Les Vieux m'ont conté du père Germain Lemieux, s.j.: Francophonies d'Amérique, Ottawa. Presses de l'Université d'Ottawa, no. 1, 1991, pp. 35–42.
  • Gartenberg, Max (1949). [Expression error: Missing operand for > "Paul Bunyan and Little John"]. Journal of American Folklore 62. 
  • Germain, Georges-Hébert. Adventurers in the New World: The Saga of the Coureurs des Bois, Montréal: Libre-Expression, 2003.
  • Maltin, Leonard (1990). Of Mice and Magic - the History of American Animation (Rev. ed.). Plume Books. 
  • Edmonds, Michael. "Out of the Northwoods; the Many Lives of Paul Bunyan" , the Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2009.

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